PUNTA GORDA — Punta Gorda officials say they won’t back down anytime soon on the new sign code limiting obscene language in public.
The new law has sparked backlash online and from many in Southwest Florida since it was approved by the City Council on June 2.
The city began reworking its sign code in January 2020 due to an abundance of Realtor signs.
During the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, more issues came to light with residential flags and signs, the amount of them, and even the language some featured that could be deemed as offensive.
A portion of the new sign code aims to restrict language that could be considered “obscene,” “indecent,” or “fighting words” when visible on a sign, flag, or article of clothing displayed in a public place.
The ordinance also defines the size and number of signs and flags city residents can display on their properties, among other items.
“We’ve received very little pushback from actual residents,” Mayor Lynne Matthews told The Daily Sun. “The pushback we are getting is from the YouTube (social media) crowd. We followed the guidance from our city attorney (David Levin) who followed the guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court.”
“Some of the people we are getting pushback from don’t even live in the city,” she continued. “We’re getting emails from people all over the country from people who don’t live here.”
Matthews said she doesn’t believe the City Council will be revisiting its unanimous decision on the new code.
“I believe we made the best decision we could make, based on the guidance we were given,” she said.
Since the code took effect June 2, the Punta Gorda Police Department has issued eight citations with three involving fines for repeat offenders, according to PGPD records.
Citations are only issued if the city receives a complaint.
“We have people coming into the city and violating the code,” Punta Gorda Police Chief Pam Davis said. “If we get a complaint, then we go investigate it.
“Some people we have been seeing a lot of (seem to be) trying to take a stand (against the new code).”
Three people who were found to have indecent signs were issued warnings; however, none of them lived in the city. One person was from Cape Coral and the other two were from Port Charlotte.
Of the two issued actual fines, one person — whose name and street address were redacted but is listed as being from Punta Gorda — was cited three times with the first as a warning, the second for $100, and a third for $200.
The second person, Richard Massey, of Sebring, was cited twice with the first as a warning and the second as a $100 fine.
“A friend reached out to me about free speech being violated in Punta Gorda and, you know, if one county does it, it spreads,” Massey said when asked why he came to City Hall on Marion Avenue to protest.
For his protests, Massey said he had a sign and was wearing a shirt with statements like “F--- Punta Gorda for trying to kill free speech,” or “First Amendment matters. F--- the City Council.”
He also brought with him the “F--- Biden” flag that can be seen flying from vehicles and outside of homes in the Charlotte County area.
Massey said he already has a Virginia-based civil rights firm behind him and will be filing a lawsuit against the city for violating his civil rights.
Punta Gorda resident Michael Hirsh spoke against the City Council’s sign code decision at the June 2 meeting as a “defender of the First Amendment.”
Hirsh told The Daily Sun on Wednesday that he wasn’t surprised the city is facing a legal challenge.
“It was just so very predictable,” Hirsh said. “You can control time, you can control place, you can control manner — those are the three things that the U.S. Supreme Court allows to be regulated for free speech.
“But you can’t tell people what they can or cannot say or put on a sign or a shirt … you just can’t.”
Two protests have been planned for this weekend in the city.
The first rally — dubbed the Protest Punta Gorda City Council (F--- Biden Event) on Facebook — is planned for 6 p.m. Friday at the corner of southbound U.S. 41 and West Retta Esplanade.
Almost 50 people are listed to attend the rally on the event’s Facebook page with another 100 or so interested in going.
The second rally is set for the city’s downtown area for Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Organizer Joshua Pearce, of Port Charlotte, told The Daily Sun he expects around 400 to 500 people to attend.
“They’re calling this the ‘F--- Biden rally’ but it is actually a ‘First Amendment rally,’” he said. “I’m hoping for 1,000 people to attend, but if we have one person I’ll still be happy. We have to stand up against this tyranny.”